Portland's Northeast neighborhoods are not easily pigeonholed. Racially and economically diverse, they are places of home and commerce, of friendship and also of disagreement and opportunity. They are the nurturing soil where generations have put down family roots. But they've also been conflict zones where blood and tears have been been shed.
Representing the interests, needs and concerns of residents is the neighborhood association. More than the commissioners who represent them, neighborhood associations can act as the first layer of civic representation for a citizenry.
As the new director for the Northeast Coalition of Neighborhoods, Joseph Santos-Lyons said he knows what a profound effect the 12 neighborhood associations in his coalition can have on the quality of life in a neighborhood. He's seen it in the many block parties held this summer, where neighbors have met each for the first time in years; he sees it when groups of people join resources to plant trees; or when folks band together against an unwanted building development.
"The neighborhood associations do have to react to a lot of nitty-gritty issues in the neighborhoods; that can also strengthen their position as community builders and to be the power broker at the local level,"
With a history working with Oregon Action, the Environmental Justice Action Group and the Coalition for a Liveable Future, Santos-Lyons is also training to become a Unitarian Universalist minister.
"One of my joys is when I see someone feel empowered," he said.
The coalition plans to address the issues surrounding gentrification in the near future, he said, and it already has made its mark on many associations.
"As African Americans have moved out of the community or passed on … the Northeast community isn't as centralized and not as dense," he said. "(But African Americans) have been and continue to be important voices for what continues to happen here."
At the same time that many old faces are leaving the neighborhoods and new faces are arriving, the overall amount of participation has decreased. That's an issue Santos-Lyons and his staff are going to address when they announce a formal strategic plan on Oct. 4. Simply enough, the plan will spell out where the coalition is headed in the future. As times and directors change, so do organizations, and after nearly a year with interim director Willie Brown continuing some of the vision of longtime director John Canda, Santos-Lyons feels its time to adjust the organization to fit current needs.
Three of the most important functions of his organization are 1) Facilitate through community; 2) Advocacy of an immediate need; and 3) Measuring the ability innovate.
But one of the most important things a neighborhood can have is an involved and well organized neighborhood association.
"The stronger their development , the stronger their consistency, the more control over development they'll have," he said. "We're not the school board, we're not the council of churches, but neighborhood associations connect to everything else."
While a strong association often can be accompanied by a vibrant business district – such as the Mississippi district in the Boise neighborhood — most neighborhoods continue to get people involved because of problems, so one of the coalition's main jobs is to get people involved in the associations when problems arise.
But many people don't wait until conflict drives them together. This summer, Santos-Lyons said he received stacks of applications for block parties.
"That's basic democracy in action," he said. "I believe one of the most radical tings one can do is to introduce themselves to (their neighbors)."